Maine is constantly discussing election reform, the continuation of a tradition dating back to the original enactment of term limits in 1993 and the start of the clean elections system after a vote in 1996.
The latest incarnation of these electoral reforms will be on the ballot this fall, when voters will decide whether to pass ranked-choice voting, a scheme that progressives embraced after Paul LePage won two elections. Ranked-choice voting, as with the recent expansion of publicly financed elections, is less about real reform than it is about manipulating the system to change the victor.
Unfortunately, those in the political system often find ways to circumvent these so-called reforms, and the changes often cause more problems than they solve. Term limits, in the end, did not prevent long-term service in the Maine Legislature: they merely forced candidates to take one term off before reclaiming their old seat or bounce back and forth between the House and the Senate so as not to exceed the four-term limit. Having experienced legislators isn’t necessarily a bad thing; indeed, they’re vital in Augusta. However, experienced legislators have found a way around the term limits law, rendering the reform largely toothless.
The law of unintended consequences has similarly plagued Clean Elections in Maine. The program has not done much to “take big money out of politics,” as its proponents frequently promised. Instead, it’s served to shift the responsibility for fundraising away from candidates and toward legislative leadership. This has empowered the political parties, and it may indeed be partially responsible for the current polarization in Augusta.
Instead of rushing headlong into another solution in search of a problem that is unlikely to be the magical cure-all its proponents promise, it’s time the state had a serious discussion about reforming its government, rather than its elections. In most of the rest of the nation, states do not divide most of the population into incorporated towns. Instead, only the most populated areas have local government, while more rural areas are administered by the county.
This may seem to fly in the face of small government and local control, but in fact, in many areas local municipal government is an unnecessary layer that just adds to the bureaucracy. If everything functions smoothly, residents may not mind that, but when town governments collapse — as recently happened in Isle au Haut, which went a year without having a town meeting — there’s little anyone else can do to step in. In addition, this proliferation of local governments hampers regionalization efforts, increasing the burden on the taxpayer with little in the way of proven benefits.
Now, Maine shouldn’t transform its entire governance structure overnight. However, there are steps we can take to encourage movement in that direction. For one, the state can empower and encourage county governments to do more to support local regionalization efforts. When done successfully, regionalization can decrease costs without hampering vital services.
The state can also change the laws regarding municipal deorganization, making it easier for towns to disband, if they so choose. The process could be reformed so that county governments, instead of the state, can assume more of the responsibilities, so the sense of local control isn’t entirely lost. Of course, the town and county should negotiate this balance case by case; it doesn’t need to be laid out in a formulaic way.
Maine is in need of some serious changes so it can become a better place to live, but gimmicky “reforms” that make people feel better aren’t real solutions. Instead, we ought to have a serious discussion about governing in this state, and how we can improve it to face the modern challenges of the world in which we live.
That’s the debate this state deserves.